bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

On the Receptio-Rossi Affair: a preface to some reflections

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 23 January, 2023

After the jollities, the hangover. Over the festive break, a corner of social media was abuzz with a tale of plagiarism, questionable business ethics and sloppy scholarly practices. It was played out in rapid instalments, on Twitter, Mastodon and I refer, of course, to the concerns first raised by Dr Peter Kidd, beginning on 24th December 2022, concerning the Research Centre for European Philological Tradition (which takes Receptio as an acronym for its full title) and the recent work of its Director, Prof. Carla Rossi. The affair has been dubbed, in depressingly unoriginal fashion, #Receptiogate — when will we stop naming everything with a whiff of malpractice after a 1970s American political scandal? That said, perhaps the cliché in the name is to the point, given as what, in part, is at stake is unoriginality. The existence of that hashtag is evidence of how the first revelations about possible unacknowledged copying precipitated quite a Twittersquall, in which further allegations were levelled at Receptio. They must have made it a very un-merry Christmas in the Rossi household. To judge from Twitter, many would consider that fair comeuppance.

The affair is not over yet; at present, there is a counter-attack by Prof. Rossi, claiming she is the victim of hate campaign and hinting at dark forces at work. Meanwhile, Peter Kidd reported on 5th January that one of his blog-posts has been removed without his agreement. There is something unedifying about what is happening now but so there was also in the glee with which Twitter assumed there was a moral certainty of Good and Evil in a manner which exists only in second-rate Hollywood films. Like remembering the unwise actions of the night before, we might prefer to forget and move on from them. There is, though, a use to taking some time to reflect because it seems to me that it teaches us some uncomfortable truths about the state of the republic of letters now.

I should preface my comments with a statement of full disclosure. Of the two main participants, I have known one for over twenty years but not met the other once. I have read some of Peter Kidd’s work closely, having been the series editor for his catalogue of manuscripts of The Queen’s College, Oxford. We may have had our minor disagreements, which we have probably both now forgotten and they certainly have not dimmed my respect for his scholarly acumen. As to Carla Rossi, I am not aware of having come across her name before this dispute, though I have now heard positive report of her. It is my impression that some have, from the revelations of the past few weeks, drawn the conclusion that there has been a campaign to deceive of which the Receptio affair is only the latest instalment. I do not intend to attempt to assess the veracity of that assumption. On the contrary, I aim consciously to avoid taking that position, for two reasons.

The first is the basic emotional one is that I do not want something so depressing to be true. Watching the fracas progress, I found myself feeling a smidgeon of sympathy for a fellow human being and her family. Few find it pleasant to be under harsh scrutiny, particularly at a time which most take for recuperation. A desire to counter-attack and to deny any fallibility makes psychological sense but she should have been better advised. It must to be said that Prof. Rossi has done herself no favours. Her early reaction was to act with unbecoming hauteur about social media, belittling Peter Kidd as ‘un blogger’ (I will return to this in a later post), but saw no irony in posting that statement on her page. Her more recent pronouncements have rarely helped her cause. If this is the villain, they are not very good at that role; she has become too easy a target for it be useful to pile more pressure on her.

There is, though, a more important reason for my reticence. My concern is that pretending to moral certainty and identifying a villain is at best a distraction, at worst a serious misdirection. We might think that by isolating the one individual considered responsible for malpractice and shame them into ostracization, then we have done a good deed to save our system. But what is that system? That is the question which interests me more than the rights and wrongs of the actions of a specific individual.

I sense that a desire to consider the wider implications is already developing: witness Charlotte Gauthier’s useful post on the affair, the positive response that it has received. My intention is to expand on her thoughts and to consider three aspects of what is happening. The first will be what it tells us about the nature of the scholarly community or what we might call (reviving a noble Renaissance phrase) the republic of letters. That then leads us into the issues of how this republic communicates in this digital age. Finally, I want to reflect on the central issue at stake in this debacle: the nature of plagiarism.

What I will not be doing is providing a narrative of what has happened. That can be followed not just by reading the various blog-posts and social media feeds. Particularly detailed are Peter Burger’s Dutch language interventions (you can navigate to them from here). It will also be apparent that I am not intending to touch on the element which relates most directly to my own research, that is the opportunity the affair give us to reflect on the nature of fragment studies as it stands at present. This is a matter to which I want to return but, for now, I will confine myself to stating that I support what Lisa Fagin Davis has said about the deficiencies in what Receptio has produced.

A final warning: the posts that follow are merely first attempts to step back and reflect on what has been going on in this affair. There may not yet be the distance to do that with perspective, and the issues may need a fuller analysis than I can provide here. In an attempt to gain some space to reflect, I will not be posting them in quick succession but over a set of weeks. It is time, though, to provide the first instalment.


The Wondrous Variety of Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 27 June, 2022

Have I ever mentioned how spell-binding manuscript fragments can be? Even if I have — and maybe I have once or twice — it is worth repeating. I can do it with just one example, which I was asked to discuss on the Picture This blog of Canterbury Cathedral Archives.

I do appreciate that the claim of being ‘spell-binding’ might cause hollow laughter in some quarters. In fact, anyone who has had to pore over a scrappy bit of parchment with kakographic handwriting from an obscure text would be likely to curse rather than to praise — likely to wish that the book had disappeared completely. But part of the fascination of fragments is the sense that they are a doorway, left just a little ajar, so we can peep through and make out in the distance how much there is which is beyond our certain knowledge. Just do not step into the wardrobe and close the door behind you.

Or fragments are the flickers of flames on the back of the cave. We conjure with the shadows they throw.

And what shadows. This is my point for today: the plurality of the fragmentary. This is the case in terms of shape and location and of previous use. It also pertains to their origins. So, the example I have recently discussed elsewhere involves a printed book which combines one pastedown from an incunable of Cicero and one from a medical manuscript, at least a century and a half older. In the space I had, I could only touch on the various questions this raises. We know that binders fairly often brought together pieces from different books to help finish a new binding they were making, but how did this work? Was there a conscious desire for variety or was it merely about what caught their eye at the specific moment when they wanted something? The variety of ‘waste’ which must have stuffed the binding shop must have been the epitome of the gallimaufrical — and these two fragments do not reflect the full range. Both could reflect a university’s educational programme at different points in its history, but what was available also included the biblical, the liturgical, the devotional, and then also the documentary and, yes too, the blank. We are aware of this variety if we survey large collections of surviving complete books but, I suggest, fragments make this eclecticism all the more immediate, as it places them into close proximity, and creates unexpected harmonies and imperfect cadences.

So, read that blog-post and tell me: are you beginning to be persuaded?

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The fragmentary is the norm

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 20 September, 2021

In these autumnal days, a return to normality is a fashionable topic — or (as the conversation often goes) perhaps it is the arrival of a new, subtly different, normality. One feature which suggests that times they are a-changing back again is the revival of in-person academic conferences, albeit masked and capped, and with no physical proximity (until the conference dinner). I have just returned from one such event, From Fragment to Whole, organised by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies, and an invigorating day it was. At this near-normal event one of the repeated propositions was about normality itself: that, in manuscript studies, the fragmentary is the norm.

It was a claim with which I began my own paper; it is probably one which you consider needs its truth to be proven. What I can say is that, in my experience, an historic collection (a cathedral’s, or a college’s) is usually defined by this characteristic: it holds several handwritten codices which give the ostensible impression by their solidity of each being whole; however, if you inspect them closely, it will become clear that some begin or end in medias res, in others the texts are disrupted by loss of leaves, while some are otherwise not pristine because of damage or wear or vandalism or, indeed, repair (for instance, when cropping with rebinding has removed marginalia) — and are, in some way, now less than originally envisaged. These, indeed, are so numerous that they tend to form the majority of the collection. What is more, this relates only to those items with shelfmarks that begin ‘MS.’; in most libraries of several centuries standing, there are also early printed books, and it is likely that some of those have signs that, as part of their early modern binding, include manuscript ‘waste’ — or did once include them: there may now be only some offset and, if one is lucky, these pastedowns, flyleaves and reinforcing strips will be collected together in a guardbook, itself is given a MS number. A library, in other words, might have an integrity in itself but this whole is a home to the fragmentary.

My challenge to you is to provide an example of an historic collection where this does not hold true. Before you rush to respond, let me provide three further points: a counter-balance, an implication and a more philosophical query.

The counter-balance relates to what, for me, is one of the delights of working with manuscripts. We might say that they begin to decline from their original completeness from the point of production — that their history is an unavoidable move from whole to fragmentary — but we would also have to admit that their completeness can also be increased: they gain accretions through the addition of further items or the insertion of notes of ownership or by the interventions of readers, and the attempts to elongate its life, and to save that ‘original completeness’ often involves medieval or later conservation work which might replace its binding and add to it extra leaves which can themselves then receive written words or passages of whole texts. The endpoint of a manuscript’s production is rarely the point when it stops coming into being: the shape it takes before us is not the result of a single movement but of generations of interactions with it.

The implication can be briefly stated: not all that is fragmentary is a fragment. A manuscript which has had its initials cut out but appears otherwise complete is fragmentary in the text it provides but would hardly constitute ‘a fragment’. What precisely we might mean by that noun was the subject of stimulating discussions at the conference. How we might go about this was the subject of Daniel Sawyer’s paper, in which he noted the earlier comments on this by Peter Kidd. What became apparent was that there was a difference of perspective in the room on the basis of disciplinary research: for those with primarily literary interests, the fragment was an incomplete textual unit, even when it was intentionally inserted into a manuscript as an excerpt or abbreviation. For those of us approaching the material with a focus on the codicology, we conceptualise a fragment as something more exiguous. Literally, the term implies a remnant of breaking up, though, as I noted in my paper, some instances we would define as fragments were born that way: the writing out of a text which was abandoned because of an imperfection or redundancy, but survives because it was recycled, often as flyleaves in a medieval binding. Despite such cases, we can provide a definition that unites all the examples: we imagine a fragment to be an out-take, the remains of what was either intended to be a larger project or produced as one. We are inclined, then, to reserve the term ‘fragment’ for a leaf or a bifolium which shows signs of being re-used. Yet, as Daniel Sawyer, also said, we have to be aware that in wider parlance, a certain vagueness is bound to remain and is unlikely to be radically revised by academics’ attempts at reform. Given this, my reflection is that we should not waste effort on trying to police the terms but instead take care to using qualifying phrasing so we can clarify the sense each of us is employing them (so we might talk of a ‘part-leaf fragment’, say).

The question I have for you is, in fact, the primary reason for writing this post: why should the obvious truth that fragmentary is the norm need stating? Why might it surprise us? My hypothesis is that, in Western culture, we have a deep-seated commitment to the concept of the whole. In my talk, I suggested it was a latent neo-Platonism: if we can perceive that there might be a Platonic form of the manuscript, the fragment would surely be at several removes from that perfection — a mark of severe defect. For sure, there is also a Romantic tradition of prizing the ruin, with its sense of what was or might have been, and that undoubtedly feeds part of the attraction of fragments. Yet, even that ruin-lust plays with ideas of the once-whole or even the future-whole. What, I wonder, happens if we accept the evidence of how the ‘whole’ in manuscript terms is neither common nor the intended nature of the object — it is, as I have said, expected to mutate, to gain and to lose — and take the next step: dispense with the assumption that the world is made up of the complete or is some way complete in itself.    

My sense, at this moment, is that, if we did take that step, it would not immediately have a significant effect on how we work when we describe fragments. There could be changes in some details — for instance, as I have explained elsewhere, with a fragment, there is a use to measuring the space between the lines and the height of minims, and that might usefully be done for all manuscripts. A more substantial change would be to provide internationally agreed permanent identifiers for manuscripts digitally reconstructed from disparate fragments; again, I have commented on this before and suspect I will do again. This would have some wider consequences but still would have a relatively minor impact. Much more important would be the shift in our perspective. It would not simply be a case of releasing ourselves from assuming a fragment is a ‘failed manuscript’. It would encourage us to begin from the assumption that any manuscript we have before us, however weighty it may seem, is not to be interpreted merely as a ‘whole’. In this way, ‘fragmentology’ would not be a small field of study but, instead, working with fragments will help us revitalise manuscript studies more generally. How would that shift manifest itself? I have my own thoughts, as will be clear from what I have written elsewhere, but I would like to hear how you might take up this proposition and deploy it yourself.

Tower or Babel
Marten van Valkenborch, ‘Tower of Babel’, c. 1600 (private collection)

Ker’s Pastedowns online

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 April, 2021

St George’s Day is celebrated in several countries around the globe — Ethiopia, Georgia, Portugal for example. In 2021, there is another reason to consider it a red-letter day: it sees the launch of the online edition of Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, with its supplements.

I have discussed before on this site the remarkable nature of Neil Ker’s work on manuscript fragments. You may notice that post was written in March 2018 when I announced my aim of producing an online edition of Pastedowns. It has taken some time to secure funding but heatfelt thanks are due to the Bibliographical Society of London and to the Oxford Bibliographical Society — the original publishers of Ker’s volume — for providing the support which allowed me to enlist the help of James Willoughby for organising the data into a spreadsheet and Tom Gillett of We Write the Web for making the technology work.

Only two points remain for me to say now, one of them minor, one of them of more significance. The first is to explain why the online edition is introduced to the world with the sobriquet POxBo. Pastedowns is best known by its author’s surname (even if there are disagreements about how to pronounce it) and his name is used for the website’s search function. We could not, however, publicise it as ‘Ker’ for two reasons. First, this is only one publication among many with which he is intimately associated, and those who studied pre-Conquest vernacular literature, for instance, will think of something else when they hear his name. Second, POxBo includes not solely his work but also the supplement published in 2000 by David Pearson as well as the corrigenda and addenda provided to the OBS reprint of the volume in 2004, compiled by Scott Mandelbrote and someone called David Rundle. I would like to thank Dr Pearson for allowing us to include his supplement in this database.

POxBo, then, is intended to signify that we are working with the tradition established by Neil Ker but are not confined to his 1954 volume. I do appreciate that, for other Ker projects, the expectation is that there should be a four-letter acronym: MMBL or MLGB, though the latter is now online as MGLB3. Following its lead, our abbreviation is five characters long because I wanted to emphasise a key feature of the work which is sometimes overlooked: its remit was not to collect together all fragments reused in bindings but only those pastedowns found in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. That was because the habit of using manuscript ‘waste’ for pastedowns lasted longer there than elsewhere in England and because the scholarship available on bindings from that university town allowed a plotting of the development of the practice with some precision.

This last comment relates to the more important thought I want to share. POxBo exists partly because there is an enduring use to Ker’s listing of fragments which is increased by making it searchable online, with all its supplements included. There is, though, another rationale and that is a sense that we have not yet fully understood how useful his work can be.

It is pleasing to see that a manuscript catalogue of an institution cannot appear now without due regard to the fragments in the collection. In many cases, however, the fragment alone is mentioned, with reference to its number in Ker’s Pastedowns. There is less attention paid to the binding from which it came but this provides crucial evidence. The date of publication of the printed book and the tools used to stamp the binding can provide a narrow date-range for when the manuscript from which the fragment comes was dismantled. This is crucial evidence for its history.

Why might this information be overlooked? A cataloguer might respond that their interest is in the fragment itself not in its wider context. Or they may point out that traditional practice privileges the medieval history of medieval manuscripts, with less attention given to what happened to them after c. 1540. They might also with justice provide the defence that they cannot include everything. I have come to realise how superhuman the challenge of cataloguing a manuscript fully can be: it requires more eyes than Osiris had. I do want us, however, to reflect on the fact that cataloguing often considers a manuscript from the standpoint of its creation, rather than its later life. What I am urging is that we look back from the present moment and focus on unravelling how the codex in front of us — either whole or in small parts — has come to be how it is.

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Postcard from Harvard III: when manuscripts are fragments

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 April, 2018

My previous trips to the States have been so brief that I could take my jet-lag home with me. Indeed, one reason I was keen to have a month in Harvard was to find out what it might be like to experience the culture without walking around in a daze. The sense of disorientation I had on other occasions was only heightened by working with collections that are so different from those in many European libraries. There a certain organic nature with a medieval core supplemented by later additions allows the style of provenance research I enjoy. That is not possible in the New World but there are, I am learning, compensating pleasures. In particular, the nature of what was available for American collectors sheds light on the mores of the later modern book market in their own lifetimes and earlier decades. What follows is a discussion of one element of that.

The heyday of the destruction of manuscripts was undeniably the sixteenth century, when technological change and religious turmoil combined to make many books obsolete. The dismantling of books was not a new discovery — there had been a medieval tradition of recycling and reuse — and it certainly did not end then. In fact, we would be cocooning ourselves in comforting myths if we claimed it was not still a function of some corners of the rare books market. My intention today is not to consider the morality of that but to take two examples from the Houghton collection to think about past practice and the challenges they set us as researchers. The first case of dismantling comes from the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, while the second occurred about a hundred years later.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 171, fol. 1.

MS. Typ. 171 is a delightful little manuscript from the last decade of the fifteenth century or possibly the first three years of the sixteenth. Its decoration may not be top-notch but it is written in a stunning italic script, one which in the twentieth century inspired the style of the leading English calligrapher, James Wardrop. Evidence for this comes in the curatorial records for this manuscript, where there are two captions written by Wardrop himself (I think they would be worthy of being given their own manuscript shelfmarks).

James Wardrop’s captions for MS. Typ. 171.

As Wardrop’s first note states, the work included in this manuscript is by Adriano Castellesi — a cleric and, eventually, cardinal who merits a walk-on role in The Borgias, as he hosted the dinner at which Alexander VI was supposedly poisoned (the intended victim, it is said, was Castellesi himself). The short text Castellesi had produced in this manuscript was dedicated to Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, the future Pius III — this, then, is a presentation manuscript in a different style from that I discussed in the previous post.

One might think that this manuscript in its early binding was complete. Indeed, that it is the assumption one is clearly supposed to draw from the title written in a lunette on the upper board, which has the one word ‘Hadrianus’.

The lunette on the upper board of MS. Typ. 171.

 This, however, is a case of misdirection. The lunette is original, but the script here is later, attempting to look contemporaneous with the manuscript. There are two details which show that the volume was more substantial than it is now. The first is the binding itself is showing wear, partly because it is apparent that something has been removed from it. We know, in fact, how many leaves are missing: look at the foot of the first image above and you will see it says ‘117’. There is one folio before it, originally blank, which also has a number: ‘116’. There were, in other words, 115 folios within this binding.

We can say something more about this, thanks to Bill Stoneman, the curator at the Houghton who is as sharp-eyed as he is genial. He immediately recognised the numbering as in a style often seen in the manuscripts owned by Luigi Canonici. He did not add them himself; they were inherited from the previous generation, when they were provided by Jacopo Soranzo. In other words, this volume had its first 115 folios into the late eighteenth century — but they must have left soon after that. Why? Look again at that first image and see at the top the added number, in a hand of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century: that demonstrates that this had become the first folio of a manuscript numbered 60 (later 70) in a collection.

When precisely did the dismantling occur? And what exactly was on those preceding leaves? I do not know the answer to either. The first detail may be difficult to pinpoint; the latter, with the co-ordinates we have, should be possible to discover. The obvious first place to look is the catalogue of the Canonici manuscripts now in the Bodleian. I am dreaming of having a night of insomnia when I can look through hoping to see the information ‘fol. 115’ jump out at me. What we can say is that it is highly unlikely to have been a work of Castellesi, since no other text by him from this period survives. That suggests that what we now have in Typ. 171 was the original presentation copy handed over without a binding. The binding was probably added soon after and brought together this work with one or more others which had been entirely independent of it — thus, the volume was a manuscript Sammelband.

The implication of this is that the lunette does not just misdirect, it positively deceives, giving the impression that this lone text in this binding was always intended to be so. It is not the only feature of the binding which is odd: as I mention in my description, the clips and clasps are the ‘wrong’ way around — that is, the clasps sit on the lower board, rather than as is expected on the upper. This too may be a sign that someone at some point was trying to confect a look for this codex, using original materials but with the purpose of making them look ‘ancient’ but with the result that they appear not quite how they would originally have been.

We cannot put a name to the person who did that but we can for the man responsible for our second example which is now MS. Typ. 486. This is a less resplendent volume and its script is unusually small for a littera antiqua but it is still attractive.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 486, fol. 1.

As you will see, it provides the life of Tiberius by Suetonius — in other words, one twelfth of his Vitae Caesarum. Most of the rest of the manuscript survives, as has been skilfully reconstructed by Christopher de Hamel in describing the largest part of it, now Bloomington: Lilly Library, MS. Ricketts 225. That includes the bulk of the biographies, but two other fascicules, in Cambridge (the Old World one) and Philadelphia, provide single lives, like that here in Cambridge (the New World one). De Hamel could name the person responsible for the dismantling of the original volume: it was J. J. Leighton, the London bookseller, working about 1902 or 1903. What makes this more remarkable is what he did to the first leaf of the section now in the Fitzwilliam: the opening page had the very end of the life of Julius Caesar and the start of that of Augustus. To make the small manuscript look more like it had its integrity, he erased the last lines of the Julius life, so that the page began with the initial and incipit of the Augustus. This was not merely separating parts out for extra profit; it was also vandalism.

In both the cases, the person doing the dismantling did not have an eye to posterity. They were not going to work with the intent of fooling later scholars — their interest was more immediate and more pecuniary. Yet, like forged charters made in the Middle Ages, they set us challenges and remind us to be wary of trusting what we see before us, lest we too are deceived. In that challenge, of course, lies part of the excitement of our work: it requires us not only to decipher the medieval production and use of the manuscript, but also to be conscious of the ways in which later interventions may mislead us, intentionally or not. I hope this post has suggested some of what we can truly call the tricks of the trade: the techniques used by generations to maximise profit, and some of the details which can help us unravel the results of their actions.

As is my wont, I have embedded above links to my draft descriptions of each of these manuscripts. I would, as always, welcome any feedback.


Fragmentary futures

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 12 June, 2017

Next week, there is a one-day conference in Cambridge which is a positively mouth-watering prospect — at least for those of us who are fascinated with manuscript fragments. The organisers, Stephanie Azzarello and Kate Rudy, have brought together an impressive list of speakers, and then there is me, rounding of the day with a talk entitled ‘Utopia, Babel and Dsytopias, past and present’. Ahead of that, I was asked to write a post for the conference’s micro-site and it has just been published. In it, I ask some questions about what the drivers may be for the recent upsurge in interest in fragments. I do not pretend to have answers and would be interested to hear your views.

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History in Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 September, 2016

Today deserves a little fanfare: the latest instalment of Lost Manuscripts has been made available this morning. There are only 32 new fragments, coming from 19 host volumes, so not a full drum-roll and brass band, please — but some piano trumpetting will not go amiss.

This is the third batch drawn from the collection of Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), a Colchester boy who rose to be Archbishop of York. We must be grateful that he left his library to his hometown, and perhaps equally grateful that the authorities did not look after his books too well: that is, they refrained from hyperactive campaigns of ‘restoration’ and so most of the books are in their early modern bindings, with some usually sensitive repair work done in the 1970s. With those early bindings often come flyleaves and pastedowns from manuscripts. The procedure on the Lost Manuscripts’ website has been the same as before: to give brief descriptions of the bindings, to catalogue the fragments and also, where possible, to bring together separate fragments from the same manuscript and to record that. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the imaginary location where those physically divorced fragments share an existence as a partially reconstructed manuscript is the city of Babel. The Babel numbers now run up to forty, with twelve new inhabitants appearing today. They include some elegant arrivals — my personal favourite is a full leaf from a fine copy of Moerbeke’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — but others, it must be admitted, turn up looking rather shabbier.

The intention of this project has never been simply to make freely available, in virtual format, information and images of these books, though that is a benefit in itself: if the result of the website is that someone appreciates more fully what can be found in an early modern book, then it has done a service. My aspiration, however, is that over time we can ask much larger historical questions about the death of manuscript culture. We are far away from being able to do that, but I do have a couple of tentative comments which I think deserve investigating further.

1. The long life of tearing up manuscripts

It is already known that, while the heyday of book destruction was the Reformation period, it began long before that and did not end in the mid-sixteenth century. The Harsnett collection itself has examples of this and it goes back much further: it was an element inherent in manuscript culture, new codices sometimes cannibalising older ones, not just through the re-use of parchment, creating palimpsests, but also through the recycling of discarded pages in bindings. The sixteenth century inherited this practice, which was certainly most widespread in the first three quarters of the century. It did, though, continue and not just in Oxford (as is sometimes said). The material used did, in some cases, change, with an increase in recent paper waste, including booksellers’ accounts, being taken out of the rubbish (or the privy) and employed to serve the purpose that parchment manuscript leaves had previously provided. There are, however, other occasions, at the very end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, when medieval codices were available and were deployed in bindings. In some cases, these were from what must have been quite impressive volumes, being used in known a book-collector’s library: the books of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) provide notable evidence of this from his time as archbishop of Canterbury (1604 until his death); I will discuss this in more detail another day. Perhaps the manuscripts involved were already too damaged to consider preserving them, but it remains striking that, in this generation of the early antiquaries, destruction could be thought an appropriate process.

2. Not one process but many

What also has intrigued me from the findings we have made so far is the variety of practice. It is obvious that there are differences in use which define the types of fragment that survive: some binders included pastedowns, others had large strips as flyleaves, yet others small reinforcing pieces. There were differences as well in the quality of manuscript, and the parts of it they would employ. In some cases, this must have been governed by issues of availability, a dynamic that must lie behind the increasing use of recent documentary material which I have just mentioned. That, though, would not explain, for instance, the habits of some binders who cut up the manuscript and kept only those pieces with no or minimal text. As some clearly did this consciously, it raises questions about others’ practices: did the provision of an elegant leaf as a pastedown, replete with text and sometimes illumination, say something about the interests or even the loyalties of the binder or of their client? There is a basic opposition in the practices between those which were intended to hide the origin of the material used and those that celebrated it, but even here these describe two extremes of a range of practices. Our intention here must be to get into the mind of the binder when they had the manuscript before them and set about re-using it: we want to recover the impulses that moved their hand as the knife came down upon the parchment.

There are, of course, further issues raised by the increasing amount of evidence that is being gathered, and any comments at this stage must be provisional. But at least we are beginning to know what questions we can ask – and I am confident they will be thought-provoking questions.

More Lost Manuscripts

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 7 December, 2015

In between the various commitments of a teaching term, I have been working on the release of a second batch of entries for the Lost Manuscripts project – and today is the day they are launched upon the world.

As you may remember, the pilot project involves cataloguing and digitizing the manuscript fragments found in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now resident in the library of the University of Essex.The rationale has been to treat each fragment both as an object worth describing in its own right and as witness to a manuscript which once existed but is now lost to us. In doing this, then, it engages with the developing and exciting practices of ‘virtual reunification’ – the process of bringing together on the internet elements of a work of art which are physically dispersed. Its manuscript variant is sometimes called ‘fragmentology’, an undeniably unlovely term (but I have complained about that before now). What the project hopes to bring to the metaphorical table, beyond a set of new examples, is thinking about the standards of cataloguing we might require for fragments and how they may differ from those for complete codices.

The intention of the Lost Manuscripts site is to make the images and the descriptions freely available. The bulk of the work for the pilot project was done in the summer of this now-closing year, but the pages are being released in small batches to allow for checking and the addition of further information. So, today is one step on a journey, and a small one at that. In the first batch, there were twenty ‘lost manuscripts’; in this, only eight. That is partly because this group includes several fragments which do not meet the rules we have set for creating a lost manuscript: if only one remnant remains from which it is impossible to extrapolate what might have been, then it is not allowed into that virtual realm of reborn codices we like to call Babel. So, a stray strip of music, or a single scrap of a copy of the Digest stands beyond that city’s gates. Of course, in those instances, our hope is that more work and more discoveries will allow us to link up that lone fragment with others – and then the doors will be opened to them.

All the same, there are some interesting finds in the fragments now there to view. Some of these are discussed on the Highlights page of the site. They include an example I have mentioned before of how some binders chose to save not the text from a manuscript but precisely those parts which provided virgin parchment. There is also a useful reminder that, while the process of dismantling manuscripts is, in English history, particularly associated with the disruption of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the reformers by no means invented the practice. The fragments involved in that case are a personal favourite at the moment because several come from one medical manuscript for which we have been able to identify precisely from what text they come: it is painstaking and, indeed, thankless work which, in this instance, involved learning more about the varieties of urine than any layperson could ever really want to know.

As the project develops, what is also coming into sharper focus is the range of questions we should be (funding permitting) asking at the next stage. We can detect a variety of practices that took place in different binderies – what were the reasons for those differences and how did they develop from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century? We also know that a broad sweep of medieval texts were ripe for cutting up, but did the variety of manuscripts and the balance between them shift over the sixteenth century? What, fundamentally, was the logic of the destruction of manuscript culture in the early modern period? These are big issues which will need ‘big data’ to begin to answer them – but they are ones that are surely worth asking.

Has the Age of Fragmentology arrived?

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 26 July, 2015

Fragmentology is a horrible word. It sounds like a shady cult (as in, ‘the fragmentologists gathered under the cover of darkness’). It suggests a pseudo-science (palaeographers donning lab coats and goggles to place a parchment shard on a petri dish). It breaks the grammatical rule not to form a word as a hybrid of Latin and Greek (but that did little to stop the march of the television). What is more, according to the OED, it does not yet exist – but it most certainly has been coined. Most recently it has been used in an on-line piece by Lisa Fagin Davis, discussing the state of fragment studies in the United States. And, reflecting on her stimulating post, and surveying what research is happening, I suspect that, however barbarous or cacaphonic it might sound, it is a term whose time has come and, like God in Voltaire’s aphorism, if it did not exist, we would have to invent it.

The studies of manuscript fragments is certainly du jour; my own little project – on which more in the coming days – lives alongside over a dozen other initiatives already on-going world-wide, with more in the offing. A useful overview of several of these is provided by a presentation made by Kaspar Kolk at the beginning of this year (it is freely available to download, and I thank Jürgen Beyer for bringing it to my attention); his list does not claim to be comprehensive and I intend to upload a set of links soon to which I hope others will add so that we can survey the panorama of research that is developing before our eyes.

We might wonder why there should be such a flourishing now. An obvious reason is technological: the opportunities provided by digitisation positively invite the uploading of fragments – particularly individual leaves, as in the example on which Lisa Fagin Davis concentrates in her post. The activity speaks to the wider museum fashion for ‘virtual reunification’ (a phrase which sounds a little too mid-1989 for my liking: an undercurrent of this post, I realise, is the worry that, though the innovations are exciting, they are not best served by the vocabulary being imposed on them). That wider agenda has its own logic which is part curatorial and part political: the digitisation of the fragmentary can have a conservation value, while the process of reuniting disparate elements does not only showcase what can be done on-line, it can also help tackle some – but by no means all – of the concerns of displaced ‘national’ patrimony. At the same time, we might wonder whether there is another, more emotional element which makes such projects attractive to funders and to the public: a romanticism about the incomplete, an element of ruin lust.

Romanticism has its attractions but it can also have its detractors. If we are seen to wallow in the fragmentary, it can raise a legitimate concern. There are, rightly, questions about what gain there is to scholarship in identifying and virtually reuniting elements from a codex which does not have any special philological or artistic significance. Lisa Fagin Davis puts it nicely:

Does the world really NEED another mediocre mid-fifteenth-century Book of Hours from Rouen? What do we gain from piecing Humpty Dumpty together again?

If the study of fragments could re-make Humpty Dumpty – and no more – the result might be little better than a curate’s egg. It is my conviction, though, that we can and should enunciate a stronger rationale for working with membra disiecta and that is precisely what fragmentology can usefully be: not the study of fragments itself but, if you will, its meta-discourse, developing the intellectual justification and scholarly standards which underpin that research.

I appreciate that I myself might sound like Humpty as he appears in Lewis Carroll, insisting that the word ‘means what I choose it to mean – nothing more or less’. I am sure the term will develop a range of nuances; I vaguely hope that it will be superseded by a phrase with more euphony. What matters, though, is not what we call it but that we recognise our responsibility to articulate the benefits of fragement studies. I have already started to attempt that in an earlier post; let me now provide more succinct expression:

Manuscript fragments survive, thousands upon thousands, but they have tended to be overlooked by scholarship which has, understandably, found richer pickings in the extant intact codices. There are notable exceptions to this but it is undeniable that there are legions of fragments that are uncatalogued and unidentified. Most of those are in public collections – often half-forgotten, sitting in other books’ bindings or kept in insubstantial folders or envelopes – but not all are; a proportion (we simply cannot say at the moment how significant) are in private hands. Their status makes them vulnerable: so easily overlooked, they are thus also liable to suffer further damage. If we add to this the truth that the dismantling of manuscripts is by no means over but, rather, is a continuing practice in parts of the rare book market, then it should be clear that there is a cluster of ethical and heritage imperatives to argue that making publicly available fragments by cataloguing and up-loading them is of intrinsic value.

This, though, still does not reach the core of what I see as their fundamental significance: they have the potential to transform our understanding of manuscript culture. We tend to write the history of that culture – certainly for its later centuries, by which I mean post-1100 and perhaps post-800 – by a concentration on those codices that have endured complete. The implicit assumption tends to be that what survives reflects what was produced, even though the evidence of book-lists sometimes suggest that the range and balance of books did not line up in the aumbry quite as they do on present-day shelves. The challenge is to test how representative what we have is against what is lost, and for that the key under-utilised resource are those manuscripts which live between the fully living and the utterly lost, the undead fragments.

What is more, the future of these studies lies not just in identifying and making available these remnants but also in creating a fuller understanding of the processes of fragmentation. As I have just mentioned, this is a history which is not at its end: that reality should encourage us not to be complacent but, at the same time, we can be confident that the early twenty-first century is not a high-point for dismembering of manuscripts. We can already identify those moments in the past when the habit was more prevalent but large-scale study of fragments should allow us to create a more naunced narrative and analysis of the process and its logic. The history of the book is not just about volumes’ lives but also about their demise.

There are a couple of implications of what I have just said with which I want to conclude. First, it should be apparent that to unleash the full potential which I have briefly outlined will require the collecting of ‘big data’ – so big that no one project can hope to achieve it all alone. This is what makes the plethora of initiatives occurring now so welcome. Of course, we would want some shared understanding of what is required from a digital catalogue; personally, I would be inclined to urge us to develop agreed minimum standards, rather a template so strict and detailed that it is unlikely all will abide by it. At the same time – and this is the second implication – if what I have suggested does provide an intellectual rationale (a fragmentology) for our practices, then it does have ramifications for how we would want to catalogue the evidence we have. As I have said elsewhere, the requirements for cataloguing fragments are subtly different from those for complete manuscripts and we should consider the principles involved. On that, more another time.

Into the fragmentary

Posted in Digital History, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 17 May, 2015

Let me entice you into the half-light, into the region inhabited by manuscripts which are no longer fully alive but which have not disappeared entirely – the world of undead books. I have become convinced that working here could have the power to be transformative of our understanding of manuscript culture. I want to encourage you to travel with me on this adventure.

All of us who work with manuscripts – or, indeed, with the earliest printed books – are conscious that we deal with only the minority that survives and can only dream of what once might have been. Early on in our researches, we come across those shards of evidence that exist between the two states, often collected in guardbooks or in boxes, though sometimes loose or hidden within other books –  fragments. I first engaged with them when working on my doctorate and I could not resist their lure. On the emotional level, there is something tantalising about this evidence of what we have lost; on an intellectual level, it is hard not to relish the challenge of identification.

Perhaps the fascination of them is why I have allowed myself to be seduced back into studying them time and again. When, in 2003, I became an Editor for Oxford Bibliographical Society, my first task was to oversee the reprint of Neil Ker’s classic Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, first published in 1954 and the classic study of a corpus of fragments whose place of dismemberment is localisable, since, in sixteenth-century Oxford, binders (more often, it is said, than anywhere else) strengthened and prettified the bindings they put on books by gluing a section from a discarded manuscript to each of the book’s boards. The reprint was not simply a reproduction. It involved providing some light updating, based on Ker’s own notes, those of another hero of Oxford manuscript studies, Richard Hunt, and the work of David Pearson, who had already supplemented Ker’s work in his own Oxford Book-binding 1500-1640 (Oxford, 2000). It resulted in the thirty-page addenda and corrigenda, work which made me conscious of how much more could be done with these broken survivors of an era of destruction.

Even at that point just over a decade ago, the potential of an on-line database of fragments was already imaginable. (Indeed, a review of Codicologica from 1983 threw out the suggestion of a ‘computerized information bank’). In the years since working on Ker, I have mused with friends and colleagues about the opportunities there might be for doing just that. Now, thanks to the University of Essex, ‘seed-corn funding’ has been made available for a pilot project which, in the coming months, will see created a digital catalogue, with images, of a particular set of fragments, in situ as strips, flyleaves and pastedowns in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), Archbishop of York and son of Colchester, who left his library to the town; those books are now in the safe keeping of the University of Essex. The intention, after this pilot, is to move on and to build up a larger database of fragments in the British Isles. How that will be done is not what I intend to discuss here. Instead, I want to consider the intellectual requirements and possibilities of such an undertaking.

Of course, the digitising of fragments now has a plethora of precedents. Juergen Berger has helpfully pointed that a listing of some of these has recently been provided by Kaspar Kolk, who is himself working on manuscript fragments in his native Estonia. His survey suggests the range of endeavours occurring across Europe and in North America. The El Dorado for many of these ventures is the aspiration of bringing together elements from one manuscript which are now dispersed. How attractive this possibility can be is suggested by the interim result for a small poll related to my own project: I invited viewers to help name the enterprise and, to date, the preference is for my jocular suggestion of Fragments Reunited (that will teach me to try a joke).

To achieve any reconstruction, however, requires some painstaking research and the scholar needs all the help both the Internet and hard-copy sources can provide. The ability to identify a text is unimaginably greater – I mean simpler and quicker – than in the mid-twentieth century when Neil Ker was at work. But so many fragments are little more than scraps and thus defy identification by text alone. And when the words are susceptible to being pinned down to a particular work, there remains the issue for every piece of parchment – even if it represents the most uncommon text – of ascertaining whether it does come from the same codex as any other fragment of the same composition.

I say this not to arouse your sympathy for the hard-pressed archival archaeologist but, instead, to raise an issue of how we catalogue fragments. One of the most important websites being built at present is the Inventory of Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Norway. They have done sterling dectetive work in organising extant sections of leaves by their original manuscripts. In doing this, they have used the rules for cataloguing developed by J. P. Gumbert. His guidance provides the noble principle that each fragment is a manuscript in its own right, worthy of being given the same treatment as a full survival. At the same time, another guiding principle of his inventory approach is the need to work at speed, with each entry being as pared down as possible. If, though, we are going to maximise our chances of making accurate identifications, I would urge that we need to include details which are not always necessary for a description of a complete manuscript, while also ensuring other data are fully searchable. So, it is not usual to measure the space between lines in a conventional description (though this can be deduced by dividing the height of the written space by the number of lines) nor the height of minims but, as a cutting is likely not to provide the full text block, these have the potential to be important diagnostics. Similarly, if the cutting is from the centre of a bicolumnar folio, we will not know the dimensions of the columns but we can measure the width of the central reservation, which might well help us make an identification. This last is a datum that should always appear in a description but if, in a database it is recorded only as one part of the dimensions, its ability to act as a comparator is all but lost. In other words, if it is going to be fully searchable, the information recorded needs to be broken down to a level of detail not usually considered necessary. My own experience is that entering these data does not slow down the process of cataloguing by more than a few seconds – and can reduce substantially the time needed later for compiling the incomplete jigsaw that are the related fragments.

It will already be clear that I am not certain that we have fully realised what we need if we are to make the most from fragments. That is likely to be because we have not yet appreciated the entirety of their potential. To give these battered remnants the attention they deserve, we needs must adopt the mantra that a fragment is a manuscript but, in an obvious and fundamental way, that is untrue and, on my submission, can even undermine our recognition of each scrap’s significance. A fragment is not an island entire of itself, nor is a cluster of them simply an archipelago. Or, rather, if it is, we are like marine geologists looking for the submerged mass which connects the elements together. That is to say, each fragment (however tiny) is a witness to a whole manuscript and should be taken as an invitation to envisage how that codex would have looked. Faced with an insignificant and scruffy survival, it may seem hubristic to think we can move from that to conceptualising the pristine object, but, if we use all the information available, and work both by extrapolation and analogy, it is not impossible to glimpse, at the very least, the original codex. This is why I would urge that, when we record fragments, we should in effect provide a double catalogue, once as the individual piece, respecting its present condition and location, and once as a testimony to a recovered manuscript – the section that, in the database I am developing, will be called ‘Babel’.

You might ask whether it is worth the effort spending the extra time on that process of reconstruction. If the potential stopped with the completion of the catalogue entry, perhaps – in many but not all instances – it would not be. That is not, though, where our work should end, for the greatest gains are to be had by analyzing the gathered weight of data that a sustained project can provide. If we continue for the moment thinking about the fragment as witness to the lost manuscript, a question that will press itself on us is how the volume came to be dismantled and half-discarded. We may think we know the answer: we can explain that, in various societies, there have been moments of destruction in their history, and we might cite as an example England in the mid-sixteenth century. That, though, is not precise enough: we should ask ourselves what we can learn about the details of the individual journey each single manuscript took from wholeness to dismemberment. If a fragment sits in a binding, we can often tell in what book-shop it must have been torn apart and we might then ask how it could have reached this bookseller (who so loved books that he broke up old ones to strengthen the new). Were all books used, for instance, in Oxford bindings in the sixteenth century pulled from local resources? We cannot know that – yet. Our goal, I am suggesting, is that we should see an endpoint of working with fragments to be about gaining a sharper understanding of the processes and levels of loss that have occurred. This matters because, as we all know, the surviving complete manuscripts that we have are a minority of those that were produced in medieval Christendom. We are faintly aware that what survives is probably unusual; what we surely need to do is to have a stronger sense of how unrepresentative the extant full codices are of the manuscript culture that existed. The study of fragments invites us to move beyond the comfort of what we have and to develop a history that more fully recognises what we have lost.